Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Truth, Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Here's a Sunday post featuring the remarks by Timothy Radcliffe on the subject of truth, which while intended for a largely religious audience, seems strangely apt for the media age.



Radcliff begins the history of our modern dilemmas with Truth in the Englightenment quest for the unmediated truth without the a priori filters of theology (which BTW sounds very much like the hope that Internet will deliver disintermediated information). But at some point the positive commitment to discover truth as it truly existed became subtly corrupted into something outwardly similar but radically different: an institutionalization of cynicism and doubt. The Enlightenment project which began in the search for the Truth became by slow degrees confused with an effort to prove that the Truth did not exist.

We understand truth almost exclusively in terms of the tradition of the Enlightenment. This is a wonderful and fertile tradition that has given us modern science and much freedom, but if it becomes the sole paradigm of seeking the truth, then it is not surprising that we are in such a mess. ...

Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, ‘From the seventeenth century onwards it was a commonplace that whereas the scholastics had allowed themselves to be deceived about the character of the facts of the natural and social world by imposing an Aristotelian interpretation between themselves and experienced reality, we moderns, that is we seventeenth and eighteenth century moderns – had stripped away interpretation and theory and confronted fact and experience just as they are. It was precisely in virtue of this that those moderns proclaimed themselves the Enlightenment, and understood the Medieval past by contrast as the Dark Ages. What Aristotle obscured, they see. ... In its search for certainty, the mind must doubt everything. One must be sceptical, suspicious and distrustful. It is characterized by Bernard Williams this way: ‘There is an intense commitment to truthfulness, or, at any rate, a pervasive suspiciousness, a readiness against being fooled, an eagerness to see through appearances to the real structures and motives that lie behind them. ... But if it becomes the primary way that we understanding seeking the truth then we shall inevitably create a society which is mistrustful and suspicious, and whose social bonds crumble.

He asserts that in our 21st century world we no longer have any Truth to talk about. What we have is universal suspicion. In place of bonds of trust we have conspiracy theories. And there is no way out of this enveloping cloud of doubt and cynicism Radcliff argues, unless we make an act of Faith that the Truth exists. Because only then is there any point in seeking it.

The central intuition of Aquinas was that, in the words of Cornelius Ernst, the world ‘effortlessly shows itself for what it is, flowers into the light.’ Of course sometimes we make mistakes and misunderstand. We may tell lies and wear masks. But the truth is prior to error and deceit. As fish were made to swim in water, human beings were made to thrive in the truth.

It would be easy to dismiss Thomas as just naïve. He never looked down a microscope and was astonished at what he saw. But that would not be fair. He spent his life arguing with people who believed that the world was not as it seemed. The Dominican Order was born in the clash between Christianity and the Cathars who thought that the material world was created by an evil principle. But for Thomas our openness to truth is grounded in faith. Everything is the fruit of God’s word, and so is ultimately intelligible. We are attuned to the world, because the one who made the world made us and made us so that we might understand.

One of the most interesting passages in Radcliff's address is the argument that not only does the Truth exist but it necessary for society to exist. Once the concept of the Truth is lost and Lies become commonplace, things fall apart. And the first thing to come to pieces are words themselves. Language is the first casualty of cynicism.

Truthfulness, then, is not just the reporting of facts. Alasdair MacIntyre maintains that facts, like gentlemen’s wigs and telescopes, were not invented until the seventeenth century. Truth is the basis of human community. It is the medium in which we encounter and belong to each other. St Augustine talked of humanity as ‘the community of truth.’ He was virulently opposed to a heresy called Pricillianism, which maintained that one was under no obligation to tell the truth to strangers. There is a lot of it about today! For Augustine telling the truth to strangers is part of building the human community, constructing the Kingdom. And this explains why many theologians were extremely intolerant of even white lies. To lie was not just to fail to be accurate. It is destructive of language, the basis of human solidarity. ...

For us, there might not appear to be much of a difference between a true remark that misleads and a lie. That is because we do not have that profound sense of the sacredness of true words as the foundation of human belonging. Lies pollute our natural environment. We die spiritually, like fish in a polluted river.

People often say that the Church is hung up on sex. For most of the Christian tradition the Church has been far more preoccupied with lying. In Dante’s Inferno, the top circles of Hell, where people get off lightest, are reserved for people who got carried away by their passions. They desired the good, but got themselves into a mess by desiring it wrongly. The middle regions of Hell were reserved for people who desired what was bad, above all for the violent. But the absolute pits where kept for those who undermined human community: the liars, the fraudulent, the flatterers, the forgers, and worst of all the traitors. Sometimes the modern Church does get a bit hung up about sex, and this suits the media, since it locks the gospel into a safe little box where it can be mocked. But for a traditional Christian, lying is seen as much more serious.

And more startling still is Radcliffe's assertion that we inflame and exacerbate even the War on Terror by avoiding the Truth and substituting for it the comforting Lie.

It often said that the first casualty of war is the truth. There is absolutely no chance of winning this so-called ‘war on terrorism’ unless we build communication with those who hate the West by trying to speak the truth and to hear it. Otherwise we shall spin ourselves into ever deeper mistrust and mutual destruction.

Yet that does not mean license to self-righteousness, because the other half of conceding the existence of the Truth is admitting that we have to listen and to learn.

The opponent of God’s truth in the Bible is Satan, the father of lies. And his lies do not consist in being economical with the truth, or making errors of judgment as politicians say these days. It is not even just that he tells fibs. His untruthfulness is in sowing doubt and mistrust between God and Adam and Eve. He makes them suspicious. His name, ‘Satan’, means ‘The accuser’, and the Bible concludes with the saints singing that ‘the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down.’ For Christians the great lie is to see other people unmercifully, to shut our eyes to the goodness of their humanity and to weight them down with the burden of their sins.

We do not see the world aright unless we see it mercifully. Iris Murdoch wrote, ‘The great artist sees his objects (and this is true whether they are sad, absurd, repulsive or even evil) in a light of justice and mercy. The direction of attention is, contrary to nature, outward, away from the self which reduces all to a false unity, towards the great surprising variety of the world, and the ability so to direct attention is love.’ As Simone Weil said, ‘love sees what is invisible.'

But only if we are open to the invisible and to love. Whether those two quantities exist to be seen we have yet to discover. But if we return to the object of the Enlightenment, which is the search for a Truth that exists, then we need not dismiss the quest for love and healing as futile. It lies there for us to find and we may glimpse it along the way like the flowers into the light. Then we can live and die, in doubt perhaps, but never in despair.

17 Comments:

Blogger F said...

As an alumnus of the US Information Agency, parent agency of the Voice of America that was born of WWII and the Cold War, it will ever stick in memory that when VOA first started broadcasting it was to occupied Europe. And that firs broadcast was an editorial explaining the need for a voice of America in terms of telling the truth in the face of Nazi propaganda lies. That agency died under Bill Clinton, one of only a handful of government programs that has ever been cancelled. I feel it died in large measure because it fell victim to the cynicism that so pervades American liberal cant inside the beltway, and it died just when we most need to explain ourselves to international audiences -- friend and foe alike. VOA continues, but it is more a bureaucracy than a mission and it has clearly not succeeded in explaining America to a whole lot of skeptics. F

7/08/2007 06:42:00 AM  
Blogger Elijah said...

True or false

Substantial escalation if true

7/08/2007 06:45:00 AM  
Blogger David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 07/08/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention updated throughout the day…so check back often. This is a weekend edition so updates are as time and family permits.

7/08/2007 08:21:00 AM  
Blogger Evanston2 said...

Thank you for your analysis and linking to an outstanding article.

7/08/2007 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Victorydad said...

Wretchard,
I enjoy your blog because of the way you search for truth in the day's events. Given that this post shows you do not fear to examine "Truth" in the context of One Who Is Truth, and one who is the accuser, I'd like to suggest Gregg Boyd's book, Repenting of Religion. It addresses the linkage between Truth and Love on one had and The Lie on the other. It also addresses how self-righteousness by those claiming their religion is truth gives traction to cynics.

7/08/2007 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

Wretchard --

I think this analysis fails because it focuses on a few intellectuals instead of how the mass of people live their lives.

What stands out to me was the sea change in how people lived and married, had children around the Enlightenment: romantic love over arranged marriages, and the expectation of children doing better economically than their parents.

What also stands out is during the 1960's, we had another sea change: contraception that easy to use, affordable, and reliable, plus of course a large rise in the standard of women.

Leading inevitably to the pursuit of a few high-status men across the globe, as these factors come into play, and massive instability among the mega-bachelor generations created by mating-market winners and losers. Oddly enough, it's matched with declining rather than increasing living standards. For all the advances in technology, men now can't afford houses that their middle or working class fathers could in the 1970's. Which means their ability to form families is pretty damn low.

I don't think the pursuit of truth forms human character, rather the fundamental way in which people live their lives: alone, married with children, or in constant fear of some uncertainty shapes their perception or general theory on how truth is.

How can ANY man believe in love and truth when he sees with his own eyes that he is not worthy of love? That he will live out his life alone? Such a man will no more believe in love, truth, life, God, or much of anything else other than his own anger and lonliness which speak to him in shouts that drown out anything else.

In contrast a man gazing upon his newborn daughter or son has no doubt whatsoever in truth, beauty, love, and God because it is right there in front of him.

Forget Augustine. And Cynicism. They are mere outward symptoms of the general health of the body politic.

[Apologies for the thread hijack and jeremiad.]

7/08/2007 01:44:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

F, VictoryDad,

Thank you for your comments. I'd only like to add that kids should be awakened to sense of excitement, adventure and wonder that come with the search for truth and love. And they have to find these things encoded in the world and people around them; written in the stars. If we do not provide this skill then where will people find answers in life's crisis except in the bottle, peep show or syringe? Once people despair of the existence of the truth then logically any doctrine, any fantasy will be as good as a truth that does not exist. It's no coincidence, I think, that the rise of the Jihad paralleled that of emptiness in the West. Without real truth why not choose the most convenient fantasy? And what fantasy can beat the one where the whole world becomes a video game, complete with a manual that assigns points for every "conquest" just like an online game and where the final boss level gives you a license to kill and 72 virgins at the end of it? That and being listed a high scorer in Zarqawi's toteboard up top. It's a good deal. Live fast and die certain. What a sad world it would be if kids only had a choice between Jihad TV and MTV. Dan Rather (remember him?) accused Les Moonves on Fox of debasing the news by erasing the line between "hard news" and entertainment. But if there's no difference then better the entertainment than the Truth.

7/08/2007 02:50:00 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Interesting post to me as I was musing on these thoughts while in a sunday school this morning which addressed the difficulty of the church presenting transcendent truth in a world of relativism.
My thought was the difficulty of elites in the West to find the language in their world view to call evil evil.
Whether it is the Beslan atrocity or the late Zarqawi and his merry band of beheaders or a thousand other Islamist acts ; the western media and leftist political class can't judge these things as it would show their philosophy to be utopian folly. So instead they undermine our morale and preach defeatism by a thousand tiny cuts.

Mark Steyn's "America Alone" and Melanie Phillips' "Londonistan" show the dour results of this in allowing radical Islam to make rapid gains in the current war.

7/08/2007 04:09:00 PM  
Blogger Kirk said...

whiskey_199,

I realize that there are some areas of the US that aren't doing as well economically as the Pacific Northwest, but really you shouldn't present your analysis as if it were true of the country as a whole; it isn't.

Overall, the figures all say that we are better off economically then the previous generation, and the existence of some local minima doesn't disprove that in the slightest.

7/08/2007 06:38:00 PM  
Blogger Buckhead said...

Quite relevant to the topic is Pope John Paul II's 1993 Encyclical, The Splendor of Truth.

http://www.ewtn.com/library/ENCYC/JP2VER.HTM

With apologies for the length, the following excerpts will hopefully be of interest:


Today, however, it seems necessary to reflect on the whole of the Church's moral teaching, with the precise goal of recalling certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied. In fact, a new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church's moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church's moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to "exhort consciences" and to "propose values", in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices.

32. Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one's conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one's moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and "being at peace with oneself", so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.

As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. … Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly.

Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.
These different notions are at the origin of currents of thought which posit a radical opposition between moral law and conscience, and between nature and freedom.


Certain tendencies in contemporary moral theology, under the influence of the currents of subjectivism and individualism just mentioned, involve novel interpretations of the relationship of freedom to the moral law, human nature and conscience, and propose novel criteria for the moral evaluation of acts. Despite their variety, these tendencies are at one in lessening or even denying the dependence of freedom on truth.

From Pope Benedict's speech at Regensburg:

The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.

God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death....

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: "For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality." Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.

7/08/2007 06:41:00 PM  
Blogger Kirk said...

Oops, pressed "Publish" before I got my 2nd point in.

Regarding:

"Which means their ability to form families is pretty damn low."

Where is this that you are talking about, again? Perhaps that's true of Japan or Italy or one the other low demographic points in the West, but it's a laughable claim if made in regard to the US.

7/08/2007 06:41:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

buckhead,

Since we cannot put questions to Allah directly, the assertion that Allah is not bound by reason is tantamount to saying those who claim to speak for Allah are not bound by reason either. If we had Allah's email address and he a private encryption key with which to sign it, so we were sure all messages came from him, then the notion of unquestioning obedience makes some sense, but as matters stand all we have is Osama Bin Laden's anonymous email account -- the man who speaks for Allah ... and we aren't even sure he is alive and actually sending the emails.

So joining the Jihad under those terms effectively waives your rationality in favor of whichever Emir or Sheik you happen to believe emits the unfettered word of Allah.
But this is nonsense. If we cannot know Allah or God through the world, through our faculties; if the entire universe tells us nothing about Allah because he may be utterly different from the messages it broadcasts then the Truth content of the Universe is actually Zero. It could be a pack of lies for all that we know; an in Allah's absence from two-way communication our only path to the truth lies in submission to human beings sitting cross-legged in some cave.

7/08/2007 07:05:00 PM  
Blogger Buckhead said...

Therein lies an essential distinction between Islam and Christianity.

For an excellent discussion, see "Islam and the Problem of Rationality" in The American Thinker.

http://www.americanthinker.com/2006/12/islam_and_the_problem_of_ratio.html

Crisis magazine also has a really, really good piece on the rejection of reason in Islam, and its theological, moral, and political implications throughout history.

http://www.crisismagazine.com/november2006/reilly.html

The demands of reason are a direct threat to Islam. Their greatest thinkers have told us so.

We ought to take their advice.

7/08/2007 08:17:00 PM  
Blogger weswinger said...

Thank you for the great post and good thread. In the interest of accurate intellectual history, I do have to correct this point; you have conflated the Enlightenment with PostModernism. Newton, the father of the Enlightenment (in England), was preoccupied with discerning the way God works in nature, not questioning God's existence. The PoMo's are a bastard offspring, not the Enlightenment. They followed fhe French version, and question everything but fashion.

7/08/2007 10:21:00 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

As usual, most thought provoking. To me it does not come down to what is true, false, good or evil. Those are important to the individual just as the individual must determine matters of faith. To the whole of human existence, the question is "what is acceptable and what is not?" How these questions relate to current events is the determination, by any one group, that "our standards are correct by divine right so you and your standards are irrelevant." That is what the fighting is all about. The radical arm of Islam is saying "If you do not adhere to my beliefs, you are irrelevant, and therefore I can kill you or not depending on my state of mind on the issue." Just as Christianity had to reform to allow other believers to practice their own faith, Islam must eventually either reform itself to allow for other beliefs or be the foundation of a bloody battle for existence. Islam vs. Everyone else.

7/09/2007 01:36:00 AM  
Blogger jafco said...

Buckhead said...
"...Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly...."

That is until something becomes "consensus". Anyone who acts contrary to consensus is "bigot" ".phobe" or whatever. And "consensus" has to be spelled out and amplified in the NYT, or else it's...BS.

jafco

7/09/2007 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger Sparks fly said...

Here is the money line:

(It is the first sentence of the 13th paragraph.)

"Of course in our complex world, there is no single measure or model of truthfullness" (Timothy Radcliff.)

Oh really!

Remember now this is spoken by a "supposed" disciple of the LORD.

Sir: There IS a single measure or model of truthfullness. His name is Jesus Christ. I'm sure you've heard of Him.

Jesus Christ is the way the TRUTH the light and the life. Does that sound familiar? Old Bean!

Whenever you find members of the Roman Catholic organization talking about truth, be afraid. Be very afraid. Remember what Pilot said to Jesus before the cross. Pilot was a Roman. Nothing has changed. The wolf just simply has a better constructed sheep skin on.

These guys are bar non the world's most accomplished liars except for Satan himself.

So look out!

Something is cooking in Pope land.

And yes, I know, some Catholics ar born again Christians. Thank God.

7/11/2007 01:17:00 PM  

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